Polar bears included in Migratory Species Convention

Polar bears included in Migratory Species Convention

18 November 2014

The 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, which took place in Ecuador on 4-9 November, voted to include the polar bear in Appendix II of the Convention.


Appendix II enumerates the migrating species that call for international efforts to administer their conservation. The Convention encourages countries to cooperate by concluding global or regional agreements to this end.


Many scientists believe, however, that the polar bear should be placed in Appendix I, which deals with threatened migratory species.


Comment by Dr Nikita Ovsyanikov, a biology professor, independent expert specialising in the polar bear and honorary polar explorer of the Russian Federation       


The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals was signed in Bonn in 1979 as part of the United Nations Environment Programme and took effect in 1983. Appendix I of the Convention lists wildlife animal species threatened with extinction. Appendix II lists the species that migrate through various countries and would benefit from international cooperation.


What is happening to the polar bear now? Sea ice melting means that that the quality of vital polar bear habitats is worsening and there is a risk of seasonal disappearances of these habitats from the species’ main home range – the Arctic continental shelf. Modern science has convincing proof of the negative impact of these changes, occurring in various parts of the Arctic, on the polar bear, endangering its existence.


The polar bear is currently portrayed in mass media not just as a symbol of the Arctic, but also as a symbol of the threats of global warming to the animal world. Today, the global polar bear population is estimated at 16,000-20,000 animals. But those are experts’ estimates, which are probably too high, because experts are unable to catch up with fast-going changes in polar bear populations. The global trend is obviously negative.


In countries of the Western Hemisphere (Canada, the United States and Greenland), the law allows indigenous tribes to hunt polar bears, and Canada and Greenland allow polar bear hunting for commercial purposes. The overall damage from legalised hunting, poaching and authorised shootings to keep people and their property safe is as follows: Around 1,000 polar bears worldwide are killed annually, including 600-800 in Canada alone, where legal aboriginal hunting is commercialised (trophy hunting and fur trade quotas are sold). Simple calculations show that in the best-case scenario, ice melting not included, polar bear reproduction cannot give a population increase of more than five percent. Even assuming that the global polar bear population indeed amounts to 16,000-20,000, the losses caused by direct extermination account for 5-6.25 percent. That figure does not include the losses that are due to natural mortality or other anthropogenic factors. To this one should add the rapidly worsening living conditions and the increasing number of anthropogenic threats that, aside from direct killings, also include pollution, the destruction of habitats, intensifying industrial activity in the Arctic, higher annoyance levels, the risk of new diseases, the risk of oil spills and other challenges.   


As things stand now, the inclusion of the polar bear in Appendix II is largely symbolic and will do nothing to save this species from extinction. There already exists cooperation on the polar bear. There is a five-nation treaty between the Arctic countries (in force since 1973) and bilateral treaties between countries sharing polar bear populations. Yet, these treaties cannot prevent the direct extermination of polar bears for commercial or political purposes, justified by the need to respect the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, while in fact powered by commercial interests and political symbolism.


The polar bear should be placed in Appendix I – that is what needs to be done to rescue it. Regrettably, this has not been done.


Russia has been persistently following a polar bear conservation policy based on a systemic approach that includes a total ban on bear hunting (since 1957), the creation of Arctic national parks to protect key polar bear breeding areas, legislative improvements, a crackdown on poachers, clean-up operations in the Arctic and other measures. But the polar bear knows no borders. It is a migrating species that is spurred to migrate by a combination of factors, above all, melting ice. For that reason, placing the polar bear in Appendix I of the Convention would be a good idea. Unfortunately, it has not been accomplished yet.   


(Photo © Viktor Nikiforov/Fyodor Yakovlev)

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